Mac Office Update for 2016

In the past, we Mac users were accustomed to getting short shrift from Microsoft. While iOS is changing that — if you haven’t looked at the breadth of MS apps for iOS, it’s really impressive – Office for Mac remains the runt of the litter. The last time we got a new release was 2010, when Office 2011 shipped. Since that time, Windows received Office 2010 and Office 2013. We got Office for iPad and then universal versions that included Office for iPhone. Microsoft is finally coming around and has released a preview version of Office 2016 for Mac.

First, four notes about this preview version. Number 1: It’s free to all comers — no Office365 subscription required. Number 2: Preview means preview. It’s a pleasant way of saying beta. I cannot recommend that anyone replace an existing Office 2011 installation with Office 2016 preview. Some features are incomplete and others non-existent. Number 3: Microsoft makes it easy to install Office 2016 preview alongside an existing Office 2011, but the preview version will slowly co-opt your file associations — i.e., Word files will start opening with Word 2016 rather than 2011. Number 4: Office 2016 preview runs only on OS X.10 Yosemite, so if you haven’t or can’t upgrade to Apple’s latest OS, you’re out of luck. With those caveats, if you’re up for the preview, download it here.

Having said that, I have been running the Office 2016 preview full time since it was released about a month ago. I’ve had no showstopper bugs, but a few annoyances like forgotten preferences and application slowness.

We all know that Office has tons of features that few of us use. In this preview release, rather than adding more things, Microsoft focused on redesigning the interface to make existing options more accessible.

What you’ll notice first after installing the preview is that Office 2016 looks very much like the Office iPad apps and the free OneNote apps for Mac and iOS. It also looks like Office 2013 for Windows. The clunky, bulky toolbars of 2011 are replaced with the lighter, svelter toolbars common to the newer apps. Many features are more easily exposed and we no longer have the odd combination of toolbars, menus, tabs, and ribbon that made up Office 2011. Microsoft also replaced many of the “floating” toolbars with “panes” that are attached to the main app display window, such as the Styles pane. This change makes it easier to keep all windows of the application together.

Many of the changes focus on collaboration and cloud features. Office 2016 includes native OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and Sharepoint integration. No matter which Microsoft cloud service you use, Office 2016 integrates natively with it. You can also collaborate with others in realtime via an icon in the top-right of each application that lets you “invite” others to work on a document with you.

Other, relatively minor or more technical changes so far include the “retina-ization” of all of the icons and widgets in Office 2016. This changes reaches beyond the “canvas” “retina-ization” that Microsoft retro-fit onto Office 2011. The difference is that every visual element of Office 2016 looks beautiful, versus just the text writing area on Office 2011, on Retina-class Macs including the new MacBook that Apple will release next month. For you Excel geeks that live a bifurcated existence between Mac and Windows, Excel now supports the Windows keyboard shortcuts, meaning you can use the Control key for copying text, for example, in addition to the Command key. Powerpoint includes an all-new Presenter View to make slideshows easier to manage. Microsoft also added a bundle of new transitions.

Most-nerdily, Microsoft based Office 2016 preview in part on the code based for Office for iPad. What this means is that Office 2016 is the first version of Microsoft Office ever to use the fully and exclusively OS X-native Cocoa APIs, or application programming interfaces. Before this release, Office for Mac OS X had been based on the Carbon APIs. Ignoring the hairy technical details, Carbon APIs were created when classic Mac OS was still in heavy use and Apple wanted developers to have a guide-path to move to OS X without having to totally rewrite their apps. Carbon was supposed to be a bridge that Apple could later burn once OS X was everywhere and people were developing for it exclusively, using the Cocoa APIs. Microsoft, naturally, took longer than most, even Adobe, to finally transition over. Fundamentally, what this means for us end users, is that, having made this jump, Microsoft can much more easily incorporate Apple technologies that already exist, like file versioning for example, and any new features Apple creates, without a ton of work on their end. Hopefully this change increases the frequency of Mac Office feature updates. I would love that.

So, with my caveats in mind, maybe this piece will entice you to take Office 2016 preview for a spin. If you do, feel free to send Microsoft feedback by clicking the smiley face in the top right of each app’s main document window. And if you don’t test drive Office 2016 – a perfectly sensible decision – the final release should come sometime this summer.

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